So let's review: The launch of 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons was undoubtedly successful by some measures, but seemed to have a lot of customer backlash both on the timing -less than 5 years after the 3.5 debacle - and the radical degree of change - mechanically there is very little backwards compatibility - and in the way it was marketed where many of the changes in 4E were portrayed as fixes to flaws in 3E and in some ways denigrated 3E in the eyes of fans. For the first time a directly competing offshoot of the previous edition took shape in Pathfinder.
Now I can tell you when 2E was announced most people were excited - some continued to play 1E but 2E was very backwards compatible and most people happily made the switch and there was nowhere near the amount of venom shown then.
When 3E was announced many of us were ready for a new system and the full year's worth of articles in Dragon made a lot of the transition easier to digest. Some saw it as too much change and stuck with 1E or 2E and as the first edition launched in the internet age there was more griping to be seen but there was still not a backlash, just some grumbling.
The development of a 4th edition was flat out denied in early 2007 then announced in August of that year as a done deal that would be published in May 2008. This caused a tremendous uproar in the D&D community and what looks like the least well-received transition yet. Paizo, sensing that this time there was both enough consumer discontent and a legal framework to allow a competing version of D&D used the OGL to create Pathfinder, initially labelled "3.75" - not a good sign.
Among the many new things promised with 4E was the creation of computer software to allow players to make characters, make monsters, and play online with a virtual tabletop. By 2009 it was clear that the online play tool was not going to happen. The character builder was pretty good though, and the monster builder was adequate if not truly finished as a product. So a small disappointment but not a total failure.
The launch of Essentials in the fall of 2010 caused another uproar - one largely unfounded IMO - that it was 4.5 and the failure of WOTC to both anticipate this and defuse the situation in a timely fashion is regrettable. It's another marketing black eye and it made me wonder how much attention they were paying to customer feedback.
One of the good things for WOTC had been the character creator. The best thing about it was that it made it much easier for players to see all of those nifty feat and power and class and race options in all of those books at once - even if they didn't own them. It also enabled the questionable "living game" approach where rules are updated every month, sometimes in small ways sometimes in massive ways - whatever happened, players could be assured the builder would keep their character up to date. It's the one piece of software that they have published that pretty much works as designed and that most people are happy with.
So what do they do? They go and change it. Completely. Into a buggy, unfinished mess that users still have to pay for! Could they have failed this project any more completely?
It's just mind-boggling. Take the one thing people actually praise sometimes about your pay-to-play suite of online support tools, the one thing that really makes the game work for a lot of players and BREAK IT! Who decided this was a good idea? Customers were not asking for a whole new tool, just continuing updates to the one they already had.
To pull back the curtain a little bit I have some knowledge of professional software development, project management, and marketing and I can tell you that this would get people fired in any real B2B environment and in many business to consumer environments. "It works for some people" is not a statement anyone should be comfortable making to a client. WOTC took the old character builder down on the day the new one went live so there was no choice for users if they did not already have the old one. The dividing line for content is that only the new CB is getting the Dark Sun and Essentials material so there is pressure to upgrade. Understandable, but this is just insulting to their existing customers and a strong warning to potential customers.The obvious solution here should have been to launch it as an open beta or even a subscriber-only beta and let your loyal users assist with working out the kinks before anyone has to start paying for it. Apparently the on-paper meeting of hard internal deadlines was more important than getting it right and not infuriating the customer base. Maybe they will learn this lesson someday, but I'm not confident in it at all.
There is also the matter of it being a web-based application. This is clearly a matter of piracy prevention and has little to no benefit to the consumer, but that's really up to WOTC. If they had replaced the old offline CB wit ha new bug-filled mess of an offline CB it would still be a problem. I suspect that it will not be the piracy solution they think it is and that bootleg character builders will still be used a year from now.
They have also promised a new virtual tabletop and a new monster builder in the future. Sure, great, whatever. They were promising those in 2007 and eventually gave up - so how long will it be before those come about? They had a perfectly good character builder and they couldn't launch a new version of it - how solid will these other 2 applications be if they do get to the point of being released? Is it something you would feel comfortable paying for?
Finally there is the matter of the future. I tend to think of myself as an old-school guy. I like to hang on to my old RPG's and just because someone stops printing new stuff for them doesn't mean I stop playing them. We played 3E more than a year after 4E came out. In the past 2 years I've played or run sessions of Basic D&D, Marvel Super Heroes, d6 Star Wars, and Twilight 2000 1st edition. I don't let a publisher tell me when to stop playing a game. With so much of 4E built into the online tools and so many players dependent on them, what happens to 4E when these tools go offline? The day WOTC announces 5th edition, the clock will be ticking on all of 4th edition's online elements. Look at how Star Wars Saga was handled - the day the license ran out
To me this whole episode is an illustration of a few things:
One, tabletop RPG's should beware of becoming too dependent on cool new online tools. Character generators are nothing new - GURPS and Hero System have had them since the 1990's but they were never as widely adopted by players as the 4E CB has been. Heck we were AD&D writing character generators in BASIC back in the 1980's too so this is not a new concept. The danger is when it becomes a replacement for the books themselves - economic downturns, marketing shifts, and management direction changes can all have drastic impacts and programmers are not cheap. The core of the game you play could disappear overnight.
Two, companies that have little or no expertise in software development or online support should probably not build their games around software tools or online support for those games. License it out to someone who does that kind of work full-time. Your odds of success increase dramatically and if things go wrong you have a convenient scapegoat to blame and possibly fire.
Three, customers don't like broken promises so you shouldn't break them unless absolutely necessary. Everything from the VTT to the uproar over Essentials being 4.5 to the errors with the new Red Box set and going back to the original handling of the 4E announcement shows a serious lack of connection with their customers. In the internet age how can this company be so out of touch with the people that buy its products? This feels very much like some of the arrogance that other companies from GM to Microsoft to even the old TSR have suffered from in the past. It looks more and more like they are listening to internal directives over external feedback to me and I'm not sure why. The RPG market is not that big. A few wrong steps can generate tremendous negative word of mouth. (It's also about time for the annual holiday season layoffs so there will soon be a new crop of former insiders who will spill the beans about how this was handled internally and it will no doubt be very unflattering). Listen to the customers. Listen to what people think who are actually playing the game right now - that should be your number one adviser base. People who used to play have a role there, and people who have never played but might be interested are worth some attention too, but if you can't get it right for the people who are already giving you money every month then why would potential customers care at all about what your plans are?
In the end it makes me a little bit sad - I was totally in love with 3rd Edition when it launched - it felt like a renewal of an old friend. I felt completely jilted when 4E launched but I have since come around and feel like I discovered a secret that a lot of the old school crowd missed - this is a good game. This year I have really turned into a 4E fan and it feels like it's in spite of the company that makes it rather than because of them. I'm not a big fan of Pathfinder but I am a huge fan of Paizo and the way they handle their business. I liked them back when they were just publishing Dragon and Dungeon and I like them even more now as I see a small company with passionate, involved management doing things the right way and being rewarded for it.
I know being part of a larger corporate structure makes it harder to operate like a small company but WOTC needs to do things differently or soon no one is going to care. Get players rolling on a decent set of rules - then change them. Come out with a good support tool - then change it. That's the kind of thing that drives people crazy and drives them away. People just want to play so make it easier for them. Remove obstacles, don't create them. Stop telling them how great the next massive direction-change is going to be and start asking them what they would like to see in 2011 or 2012. Stop making them fight through format changes and pullbacks and products being taken off the schedule after they have been announced - you have a good game here! You had a nice set schedule and format for everything for 2 years along with the start of a nice suite of tools - why screw that up? The past year has not been a good one in relating to the customer base. Please try and sort it out and move forward with a new approach. "Customer-Driven" is not just a marketing phrase, especially in smaller markets like this one. Most of us would like to see D&D flourish and it's in your hands now. Try to get it right. The first time. Not in errata. Not in website apologies or clarifications. Find out what the players want and then get it right the first time. It matters.